For over 150 years, the Grisell family has been in the funeral business. Now, in the form of Evan Grisell, the family has welcomed its seventh generation to the family business.
The Grisell’s history in the business began in 1847 when Simeon Grisell, a Quaker minister and cabinet maker, unofficially joined the profession. Given his occupation and religious standing, he was often called upon to help when someone died in his small community of Rocky Run, West Virginia.
Simeon, as a Quaker, was opposed to violence, so he moved his family to Kansas during the Civil War. Following the war, much of the family returned to West Virginia where they settled in Moundsville in 1891.
From there, Simeon’s sons and grandsons carried on the family business.
Simeon’s son, E. Chalmer, hosted many of the community’s layouts and funerals in the family home. Chalmer’s son, Elmer, became the first in the family to become a licensed funeral director and purchased the family’s first motorized hearse.
Elmer’s sons, Elwood and Curtis, passed down the business to Elwood’s son, Sidney, who then passed it down to the familiar Corbin funeral director, Eric Grisell.
After almost 150 years of being in the funeral business in West Virginia, Eric Grisell and his wife decided to branch away from the family business after family dynamics changed. Without a clue about where they would end up, the couple brought their young family to a state they had never been and decided to settle down in Corbin.
“I like to tell the story: drove down, went around town, went home, sat down in front of the TV, turned on the history channel and on was the story of Harland Sanders,” said Eric Grisell. “To me, that was God’s way of saying this might be where you need to be.”
The family purchased the Vankirk Funeral Home, which Grisell said was well established with a good history.
“We were able to move here, kind of struggled at the beginning, but things have turned around. We seem to have been accepted into the community, and then Evan weighing his options still wanted to come in the funeral business,” said Grisell.
After almost 20 years in business in Corbin, Eric’s son, Evan, chose to join the family business.
“I feel blessed that he has come in simply because it helps me with my focus towards the future and what we want to do. He brings new energy,” said Grisell.
Evan Grisell said that he began working in the funeral home when he was in high school doing little things. He said it was those experiences and conversations he had with his father that ultimately led him to make the decision to join the family business.
“The more I worked, and got to work with families, the more I realized that a lot of my skills actually could be used right here at the funeral home,” said Evan Grisell.
Evan Grisell said that his parents encouraged him to go to the University of Kentucky to try and explore different career options, but it was ultimately being part of a rich family history, his love for Corbin, and his experiences that led him to become a licensed funeral director and embalmer in October 2020.
“I guess it was probably about my sophomore year of high school that I thought ‘well I may really try to do the funeral home,’ but still then, I studied finance at UK and was interested in finance,” said Evan Grisell. “I always thought med school or going into the dental field might be something I wanted to do. That was a big reason they pushed me to go to UK – to make sure I tried something different and get out there and talk to other people, get out of Corbin for a little bit and see what my interests really were.”
Before Evan entered the business, his father wanted to make sure Evan understood the difficult parts of the career.
Eric Grisell said the funeral business is hard because his time is not his own. He vividly recalls having to leave one Christmas morning while Evan and his siblings opened Christmas presents because he received a call.
Evan Grisell said that entering the funeral business really is a family business, not because he is working with his father, but because his entire family has to be on board for the business to work.
Adding a new generation isn’t the only change that has taken place at the funeral home this past year.
Both father and son agreed that the funeral business itself has seen dramatic changes with traditional funerals having become less common since the COVID-19 pandemic began. COVID-19 has presented logistical challenges, such as who will embalm individuals who had COVID or how will the family ensure that everyone who wants to say goodbye to the deceased has the opportunity, which have come to the forefront of the Grisells’ minds.
The duo decided that to answer the embalming question, only Eric or Evan would expose themselves to the virus.
As for ensuring that individuals can say goodbye to the deceased, Eric Grisell said that the funeral home has done things he never thought it would do.
We never thought we would do a drive through visitation or a Facebook live funeral, but we have done them, said Eric Grisell.
Evan Grisell, said that he thinks those types of situations are where being a multi-generational family business has helped equip the business to handle those changes.
While the means of hosting a funeral may have changed, both agreed that some elements remain the same.
Evan Grisell said that while the family has tried to determine how funerals play into modern society, it has become apparent how necessary the human touch is during funerals. Both father and son said they have noticed how people value the human interaction during the funeral especially since it has been restricted.
Touching is part of the natural expression, so not touching has been hard on the families, said Eric Grisell.
The duo said that while many things have changed over the past year, many things have remained the same.
The sixth and seventh generations of the funeral business generations are looking towards the future for the family business.